Book Review: The Stranger in the Woods

My copy of the book.

No man is an island, not even the most ardent of so-called hermits, like Christopher Knight, who in 1986, at the age of 20, drove into the Maine wilderness and didn’t emerge until 27 years later when he was arrested. Michael Finkel’s 2017 accounting of Knight’s life, The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit is one of the most remarkable and introspective books I’ve read in quite some time. At just shy of 200 pages, it was also accessible, handled with wit, deft, and at times, even laugh-out-loud charm, by Finkel.

What does it mean to be immersed in quietness in today’s world? Even as you read this (and thank you!), can we say the act of reading is quiet? Because I’m “intruding” with my words, requiring you to read the words in your own head, contravening any attempt at quietness. Much less the intrusion of actual spoken word and the various other forms of noise pollution we are inundated with on a day-to-day basis from the chirping noises of our phones to the external noise of our televisions, vehicles, train horns, and much more. Finkel, at one point, asks us to reflect on when the last quiet, solitary moment we’ve had was, where we weren’t even engaging in texting. That’s a good thought experiment! Lately, I would say it’s hours at at time when I’ve been sticking my nose in a book, but as I just said, even that isn’t “solitude” of a kind, because I’m not alone with my own thoughts, I’m with Finkel’s, or whomever I happen to be reading’s, thoughts. Still, it is almost like I’ve had to train my brain to ignore any attempts at intrusion on my “reading time” to ensure I keep reading.

Such yearning for looking inward is why Buddhist-like meditation and mindfulness is so romanticized, ascendant, and pervasive in Western society: there is much appeal in closing off our mind to everything external. And, obviously, there is much to be said physiologically and psychologically for allowing our brains such a moment. In an evolutionary biological and psychological perspective and context, yes, we evolved by necessity with small groups of other humans, but it wasn’t as if we were chit-chatting all day long while hunting and gathering. And yet, language and being social are defining features of what it means to be human. We also know that physiologically and psychologically, solitary confinement, isolation, and abandonment (neglect early on by one’s parents and/or societal rejection itself) are deleterious to humans. That is why I’m an vehement opponent of solitary confinement as a form of human punishment. It’s cruel and unusual punishment to do that to any sentient being.

And yet. If we believe the story Finkel sketches of Knight, he went 27 years without uttering another word, perhaps beyond, “Hi” on one occasion, to another human being. He seemed perfectly content with living in such a fashion. So extreme was Knight’s desire to avoid human interaction, he didn’t even light fires in 20-degrees below 0 Maine winters to avoid potential detection. And yet, Knight was also a few minutes from human civilization, within earful of other humans and their cabins, and if he so chose, a not-too-far walk to a local deli. He wasn’t in the deepest of nature; it was that he was in a particular nook and cranny of nature behind elephant-shaped rocks and his personal Stonehenge, as Finkel calls it, that he went undetected for 27 years.

The reason, however, I say no man is an island, including Knight, is that Knight stole at rather unprecedented, nearly unbelievable rate: he broke into those nearby cabins at least 40 times a year for 27 years, or 1,080 successful breaking-and-entering instances, to seek car batteries, mattresses, books, TVs, and all manner of food (mostly processed, sugary food reminiscent of a teenage boy). In other words, other human beings were unwittingly and involuntarily sustaining Knight; Knight was not self-sustaining. He was not hunting and gathering. He was not fishing. To completely extricate yourself from modern society, especially in the United States, just is exceedingly unlikely, dangerous, and regrettable shortly thereafter.

Look at another Chris, Chris McCandless written about (and later adapted for film) in Jon Krakauer’s indispensable 1996 book, Into the Wild. McCandless actually seems similar in many ways to Knight: Both are named Chris, so I don’t know what’s up with that; both had families who loved them and it didn’t appear they were running away from anything; both were intelligent individuals; both drove into the wilderness and then abandoned their vehicles; both seemed to do it whimsically without much forethought to sustaining themselves in the wilderness; both included reading material as part of their necessary sustainable items; and the number one issue both faced was hunger.

The two major differences between the two are that 1.) McCandless died within 113 days of absconding into the wilderness (of hunger); and 2.) McCandless kept a journal of his experience and even took self-portraits, which Knight decidedly and purposefully did not. He had no interest in recording his experience. Had he not been arrested for his thefts and breaking-and-entering acts, he would have likely died unknown, if he was ever discovered at all.

I have to say, since reading Into the Wild and up to reading The Stranger in the Woods, I’ve also shared the yearning that Finkel describes, of wanting to abandon everything and go off into the wilderness, to be ensconced in solitude. When I was in my early teens, I even specifically said I would want to go live in cabin in Maine by myself. But I also know that I would never actually do it because roughing it by yourself in nature is a sure way to end up like McCandless. And yes, I like some social interaction. So, I do give Knight a little bit of credit, even if he was stealing, that he somehow survived 27 years out in nature. Nature is not the most hospitable of hosts. It’s incredible he didn’t contract Lyme disease, for example.

I also, though, do not revere Knight or romanticize him (and I don’t think Finkel does, either, although he’s obviously fascinated by him since he wrote the book on him after visiting and talking with Knight numerous times), because Knight strikes me as narcissistic and arrogant, if not exactly judgmental of society, he thinks highly of his own discerning intellect, and more importantly, because he terrorized that little cabin town in Maine. We’re talking decades of the “hermit” breaking and entering people’s cabins and stealing items. Yes, he was never directly violent, nor did he take items of high monetary value, but he was still stealing, and he was scaring people. Some who owned those cabins felt they could never have peace-of-mind as long as the “hermit” was still out there. Not to mention, even though he said there was nothing sexual or otherwise about it, it’s still creepy to know Knight was watching families four hours on end to mentally take notes of their movements to better formulate his plans to break into their cabins. Both are violations, and some of the owners attested to feeling violated.

What fascinated Finkel about Knight’s story, which surely fascinates anyone who hears it, is why did Knight go off into the woods, and my follow-up question, why didn’t he abandon his haphazard plan after a few days or weeks or even months into it? Sure, I could see the whim to do it initially, but what’s astounding to me is he stuck to it for decades. Because life and its people are messy, there is no good answer Finkel or Knight can provide. Knight just did. Because. He wanted to be alone and he was. But that yearning stretches back to since humans began recording themselves, this yearning to escape and extricate one’s self from the daily churn of life, from the social aspects of life. Today, there are “hermits” in Japan, known as hikikomori, or recluses, who relegate themselves to their rooms and haven’t left in years. But again, no man is an island, and they’re obviously being sustained by their parents. Finkel goes over some of this history, with words from those who committed themselves to a solitary existence, including perhaps the most famous Western poster child for it, Henry David Thoreau and his book about his experiences, Walden. Chinese culture also seems replete with many hermits, including a tome to the hermit lifestyle, Tao Te Ching, of which Knight read. I do find it amusing that rural Mainers, whom Knight absconded with their reading materials, possessed Tao Te Ching and The Communist Manifesto, for example. But I digress. Finkel references Tenzin Palmo, who lived near London and became the second Western woman to become a Tibetan Buddhist nun. At the age of 33 in 1976, she moved to a cave in the Himalayas of northern Indian, eating one meal a day delivered to her (again, no one is an island). Somehow, though, Palmo remained in the cave for 12 years and more miraculously, she didn’t once lay down, even to sleep.

Palmo said she was felt liberated, including from a fear of death. “The more your realize, the more you realize there is nothing to realize.” That’s a very Buddhist thought, of course, and she further added, the basic delusion among humans is that we ought to be moving toward something and attaining something rather than staying present, still, and looking inward. I do appreciate such insight and introspection.

The reason we are so fascinated by hermits, by those who willingly are solitary, by folks like McCandless and Knight, and why meditation and mindfulness are all the rage in our modern lives, is because we think some wisdom will be gained by delving deeply into ourselves, and someone like Knight delved deeply into himself for more than 27 years. As Finkel said, “But once in a beautiful while, wisdom gained through frustration pays dividends.” I’m not sure what wisdom Knight gained, though, other than affirmation of his predilection for being alone. Or in quoting Dostoyevsky, who said, “Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness,” that is true of all humans, and I think one need not confine one’s self to the woods to enable our consciousness and maximize it therein.

Knight just hates the social mask we wear, which I obviously find relatable. More than anything else, upon having to “re-enter society” after his arrest, he detested having to figure out emotions, social cues (verbal and non-verbal), and conversate with others again. While in the woods, Knight did shave, but it was a mask of a kind, ironically — so as to not appear like the prototypical “hermit” — and he never kept a mirror. He said to look in a mirror, you’re acting. That did strike me as profound and true enough. I’m seeing what I want to see, projecting what I want to see, for good or ill, and often that itself is informed not by my own eyes, but what I’m thinking based upon my own attitudes about myself, which are often informed by my interactions as a social being.

Perhaps, though, the most charming aspect of Knight’s peculiar journey and time lapse into the woods is that, sort of like Tom Hanks in Castaway, Knight had a “pet” or “companion” he personified: a mushroom that over the decades ballooned in size. When he was arrested, he most worried about the police finding his campsite and trampling the mushroom. They didn’t. Away from humans, we nevertheless yearn and need some sort of connection.

If you also read Into the Wild, and/or are just interested in the subject of solitude and quietness, I highly recommend Finkel’s book. I think he expertly walked the line between not romanticizing Knight, but also not treating Knight like an object of curiosity on display at a circus, akin to the Elephant Man. Knight just is.

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